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How to Build and Manage An Effective Product Development Team

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How to Build and Manage An Effective Product Development Team

At the heart of every company, there is a critical function called product development that determines their long-term success. Regardless of what industry you operate in, your capacity to develop, validate, and bring new products to market is paramount. Research from the 280 Group showed that an optimized product development function on its own could increase company profits by 34.2%. This often comes down to having the right product development team on board. 

In today’s article, we’re going to discuss how you can build and manage a team that will effectively support you in digital product development. Let’s dive right in! 

Key Areas to Focus On While Building and Managing a Product Development Team

There are a few aspects that you need to consider from hiring and leadership all the way to career progression.

1. Hiring

It should go without saying that you want to assemble the best possible people as part of your product development team.  Here are some principles to keep in mind that will help you do exactly that:

Hire for both hard and soft skills

It’s not enough to just hire technical wonderkids. Apart from first-class hard skills, they should also possess the right soft skills including communication, teamwork and problem-solving abilities. Only then they will be able to positively contribute to product and design development.

Create a skills inventory

Work on identifying the skills that you currently have access to and those areas in which you’re lacking. This exercise will help you understand the sorts of skills that you should be looking to go out and hire.

Use the right skills assessment methods

When you’re evaluating potential hires, it’s crucial that you use the right type of skills assessment test for the specific use case. This will help you ensure that you aren’t wasting time and resources on irrelevant assessments or candidates that aren’t fit for the role. 

Be proactive when searching for talent

It’s important to remember that top performers almost never come through open job applications. They’re in high demand and usually, they can sit back and wait for opportunities to come to them. As such, it’s important that you use platforms like StackOverflow, LinkedIn, and referrals from your network to proactively search for the best talent and bring it into your team.

2. Leadership

The next important component to ensure smooth product planning and development is creating the right product culture. And that needs to be set from the very top.  Ben Horowitz, famed entrepreneur, and businessperson, explains it as follows:

“Culture isn’t a magical set of rules that makes everyone behave the way you’d like.  It’s a system of behaviors that you hope most people will follow most of the time.”

The way that you encourage these behaviors is by clearly communicating a vision for where you want the product and the team to go.  Everyone is looking to the leaders for this clarity and it helps to ensure that everyone is pulling in the same direction and working towards achieving the same goal. Without this alignment, your culture is left to the whims of the lowest common denominator and that can be very harmful to overall team dynamics.

Another important principle is that you should aim to empower your team rather than micromanage them.  The most talented designers and developers don’t want to feel like someone is watching over their shoulder all the time. They want to work independently and feel like they have the trust of their leaders. The role of a good leader is to support his team with whatever resources, direction, and incentives they can, but then step out of the way so that each person can do what they do best. 

3. Internal Processes

The next step is to make sure that your internal operations are set up in the most efficient and effective way possible to enable smooth product planning and development. Here are some of the things that you should be considering here:

Decide on the right team structure

To maximize the collaboration in your product development team, you need to have a solid structure that creates the space that your people need to do what they do best. This is key – if you get it wrong, you’ll find that your progress is impeded quite significantly, and you might not even realize it. Here are three common structures that could work for your team:

  • Centralized Team Structure.  In this setup, your entire product development team works in one location, all under one key decision-maker.  When you do this, your developers work as mini-agencies, essentially being deployed to various projects as and when needed. You benefit from shared knowledge and experiences while also unifying the product development principles throughout the organization.  The downside is that your team is somewhat isolated from the rest of the business which can lead to misalignment.
  • Embedded Team Structure.  Here individual product developers are integrated into teams across the organization in a cross-functional way. This means that each individual is deeply embedded in specific products which is great for focus, but it does result in some duplicated work because other developers might not know exactly what you’re working on.
  • Flexible Team Structure.  This is where you combine the centralized approach with the embedded one. Developers are still integrated into specific teams, but they also report to a head of product development that seeks to align everyone and unify the approach. This flexibility is very valuable but also can result in wires being crossed when team members aren’t sure who to report to and who should be making the final decision.

There is no one right option here because everything will depend on your unique company circumstances and the sorts of products you’re working on. It’s worth revisiting this every now and then to find the right option for you, also don’t be shy to experiment.  A great example of this comes from Buffer, a social media automation company that has changed their product team setup multiple times until they stumbled across the right results in terms of effectiveness and information flow.

Use Tools That Improve Design-Development Team Collaboration

Great software can be a fantastic asset for improving the collaboration between your design and your development teams so that everything goes as smoothly as possible.  

  • For brainstorming within the product development team you might want to consider tools like Miro that offer powerful visual collaboration spaces for teams of all sizes.
  • For building error-free prototypes fast, UXPin Merge will help you leverage ready UI code components to accelerate the process while also simplifying a few traditional product development processes like handoff.

There are a wide variety of other technological tools  that could be helpful – so look out for those gaps in your processes, and see if there are solutions to help you tighten them up.

Create Product Briefs

Product development can very quickly expand beyond its original scope if you don’t have the right context and guardrails in place to keep the project on track. One of the best ways to do this is to codify your thinking and plans into comprehensive product briefs. These documents align everyone’s expectations and record the direction that the product is going in.

Nicole Burrow, design director for CX at Spotify articulated this perfectly when she said:

“A key ingredient in team success is ensuring they have all the context they need. I introduced this collaborative brief that designers develop alongside their product counterparts, so they always have the “why” defined before they start ideating. This helps us align on what problem we’re trying to solve and why this is important to the business at the outset of the hypothesis development stage.”

Organize Regular Meetings

Along the way, you should be looking to organize regular meetings for your product development team to come together and make sure that everyone is up to date with what’s going on.  These could include the following:

  • Daily standup meetings to build accountability and ensure that the whole product development team knows what everyone else is working on.
  • One-on-one meetings with the team leader to clarify direction and look for opportunities to improve.
  • Team meetups to go through sprint planning exercises and retro meetings to assess progress.

These meetings are crucial to managing the project and should act as a valuable check and balance to keep everything in line.

Decide on Appropriate Performance Evaluations

It’s important that you select the right evaluation techniques to monitor and measure performance.  This needs to be done not just on an individual level, but also at a team level.  The most common framework implemented by great companies is the Objectives & Key Results framework (OKRs).  One example is Sears who saw an 8.5% increase in hourly sales within 18 months of introducing the system. And those results have been repeated by numerous other companies who have done the same thing.

OKRs are a robust method for setting and tracking goals. The objective states what is to be achieved, and the key results explain what it’s going to take to achieve that objective. This allows you to create cascading goals that are systematically linked – pushing you towards the north star mission while managing all the smaller steps along the way.

4. Career Progression

Lastly, if we zoom out from one specific project and think about your product development life cycle as a whole, it’s crucial that you give your top performers a clear path in terms of career progression. You want to design career paths that align with the goals of your team members so that they feel valued and purposeful. Spotify does this with their Y shape progression which gives designers the decision between moving into management or continuing to refine their design skills to become an expert.

Having a clear progression makes for a much more stable working environment where employees know where they stand.  This is critical for retention and for maintaining morale throughout each product development cycle.

Summary

And there you have it.  Those are some of the core principles that can help you build and manage an effective product development team.  When you implement these and focus on the key action steps – you’ll find that your digital product development moves to an entirely different level.

Operationally, there are few things that will deliver a better ROI on your time and investment than getting your product development team in sync.  Now is the time to rethink your processes and get these best practices into your organization as soon as you can. And if you’re looking for a tool that will help you further optimize your product and design development, then check out UXPin Merge

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